Arrange the Cards

Shuffle a deck of playing cards. Now rapidly rearrange the cards in the correct order.

I have embedded this simple task in brief simulation games to help the participants to improve their critical thinking, team work, productivity, goal specification, trust, transfer of learning, continuous improvement, optimum group size, reverse engineering, empathy, paying attention to details, and other such elements.

Here are brief descriptions of nine of these activities.


This activity dramatically emphasizes the importance of specific goals. Give the group a shuffled deck of cards and ask them not to look at the cards yet. Proceed in a hurried fashion. Tell the participants to work silently and to word fast to arrange the cards in order.

When the group has completed the task, ask the participants to stand up. Inspect the arrangement of the cards and exclaim, “But this is not in the correct order!” Explain you wanted the cards to arranged with all four Aces first, 2s next, 3s next, and so on. Within each set of four cards of the same value, they should arrange the cards in the order of Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds.

Conduct a debriefing discussion to drive home the importance of clearly specifying the goals you want to be achieved.

Plus and Minus

This activity helps the participants to come up with appropriate division of labor and pay attention to details.

Shuffle a deck of cards and remove and hide one of the cards. From another identical deck, secretly take a random card and insert it in the first deck and shuffle the deck again. Give it to the group and tell them to discover which card is missing and which card has a duplicate. Repeat the activity by giving the group suitable time to debrief what they learned from the previous experience and how they could become more efficient.

Order, Order!

This activity emphasizes the importance of shared mental models to increase the efficiency of a team.

Give a Master Deck of cards arranged in an easy to recognize order (such as ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, and King in Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds). Give a shuffled deck and ask the group to rearrange the cards in the same order as the Master Deck.

When done, tell the group that you are going to repeat the activity with a new sequence of cards in the Master Deck. Give the team a shuffled deck (with the cards in a random order) and explain this is the order to be duplicated.

Give another shuffled deck and have the group rearrange the cards to duplicate the recent Master Deck. Stop the activity after the group members have been sufficiently bored or frustrated. Conduct a debriefing discussion to discover why it took more time to rearrange the second deck. Steer the conversation toward the use of previously-learned mental models as a standard operating procedure.


This activity explores learning from previous experiences.

Give a shuffled deck to the group and ask them to arrange the cards in the order of Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5 6,7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, and King along the Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds. Keep track of how long it took the group to complete this task.

Ask the group members to discuss how well they performed the task and how they could speed up their performance without sacrificing their accuracy.

After 3 minutes, ask the group to rearrange another shuffled deck. Time the activity. Conduct a debriefing discussion about why it took a shorter time to complete the second round.

Group Size

This activity helps the participants to experience how difference sizes of work groups affect their productivity.

The activity works well with a total number of 15 participants. Randomly organize the participants into groups of 2, 4, and 8. Keep the left-over participant as an individual contributor.

Give this individual and the three other groups shuffled decks of cards. Instruct the groups (and the individual) to arrange the cards in the order of suits (Clubs, Hearts, Spades, and Diamonds) and values (Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, and King) as quickly as possible.

Conduct a debriefing discussion about how much the participants enjoyed working in groups of different sizes. Also ask them to identify the advantages and disadvantages of different group sizes working on the specific task of arranging playing cards. Continue with what-if questions related to other types of mechanical and creative tasks.


This critical-thinking activity helps the participants to learn about the scientific method. It is based on the brilliant card games, Eleusis by Robert Abbot and Eleusis Express by John Golden.

To facilitate this activity, nominate one of the participants to be the Rule Maker. This person writes down a secret rule for arranging the deck of cards (for example, alternate among two black cards and two red cards). The Rule Maker lays down five cards in a line making sure that the cards are arranged according to the secret rule. The other participants study the cards, trying to guess the secret rule.

The Rule Maker continues placing one card at a time, pausing after each card. When ready, a participant writes down what he or she thinks is the secret rule on a piece of paper and gives it to the Rule Maker. If the guess is correct, the participant who wrote it becomes a Scientist and joins the Rule Maker to add cards to the line, one at a time. If the guess is wrong, the participant has to wait until everyone else has written their guesses. The game ends when everyone has guessed correctly or when the Rule Maker has used up all the cards.


This activity explores aspects of trust and betrayal. Give a deck of shuffled cards to the group and a folded piece of paper to each participant. Tell the participants not to show the message inside the folded piece of paper. Explain that this message will say either

You are a loyal team member. You support your group to work faster and better, or

You are a Double Agent from a competing group. Your slow down this group’s activity without being suspected.

Ask the participants to work jointly and arrange the deck of cards in a regular order with all Clubs, followed by all Hearts, all Spades, and all Diamonds. Within each suit, the cards should be in this order: Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5 6,7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, and King.

When the task is completed, ask the participants to point to the person they suspect of being the Double Agent. Ask the participants to describe the behaviors that suggested that this person is the saboteur.

Confess that you did not give the Double-Agent message to any participant. There was no saboteur in the group.

Conduct a debriefing discussion to drive home the point that paranoia (whether justified or not) reduces the trust level and productivity of the group.

Card Spell

This activity helps the participants try their hands at reverse engineering—coming up with a process to achieve a given goal.

The facilitator demonstrates a magic trick by holding a packet of all 13 cards in the same suit, face down. She spells ACE (A-C-E) moving one card to the bottom of the packet each time she says a letter while spelling. After doing this, the facilitator turns over the next card (now at the top of the packet) and shows it to be the Ace! She places the ace aside and spells TWO (T-W-O) as before and turns over the next card face up. This turns out to be a 2. The facilitator sets the 2 aside and continues spelling the other cards in sequence: three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, Jack, Queen, and King. The packet of cards gradually shrinks in size as the facilitator repeats the turnover of the spelled card.

After demonstrating this piece of magic, the facilitator asks the group to replicate the effect, giving a clue that the magic depends on the original arrangement of the packet of 13 cards. (If you want to cheat, this magic will work automatically if you arrange the packet of cards in this order to begin with: 3, 8, 7, Ace, Queen, 6, 4, 2, Jack, King, 10. 9, and 5).

After the participants discover the arrangement (or you reveal the secret), conduct a debriefing discussion of how to use the technique of reverse engineering to come up with a process that achieves a desired goal.

Leading the Blind

This activity improves the level of empathy among the participants. To begin the activity, blindfold a participant and appoint another participant to be the Guide. Give a packet of 13 cards of the same suit to the “blind” person and ask this person to arrange them in a correct order (Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, and King) with the help of the Guide.

The Guide cannot touch the cards but can give spoken directions. (Example: Pick up one of the cards. Place it in front of you to start the line. Now show me another card. Place this card to the left of the card on the line. Show me another card. Place this card in between the other two cards…).

Stop the activity when the 13 cards are arranged in the line in the correct order. Conduct a debriefing discussion with the ‘blind” participant, the Guide, and the spectators about putting yourself in the position of the other person, clear communication, motivation, and other such elements that contribute to empathy.